This was how it started last time and the time before that. Ellie recognized the signs. If she didn’t leave her bed at a certain time, then she wouldn’t at all. She’d fall in and out of sleep, waking only to stare at her wall until supper when she’d join her mother for food and light conversation.
On her better days, she brought Sunflower along to play catch at Marietta’s house. This took place twice in the day, before and after any of her work in the Town Hall. And every time, she’d make sure to ask Marietta if Shreya had come back, and the answer was no every time.
Shreya had said she’d be back as soon as she could, but that wasn’t a statement Ellie could mark a calendar by. What if she didn’t return? What if Shreya was only meant to be a brief footnote in her life, someone intended to be a memory?
Everyone would be happy if that was the case, wouldn’t they? Their future leader would be unattached, free to find a partner better suited for their town. Zinnia would lead the celebratory parade. Trumpets would sound. Cymbals would crash. Heiress would break.
She stopped going to Gaurin’s lessons. Ellie couldn’t stand them. It felt like Zinnia was purposefully participating more than ever. The girl wouldn’t stop talking about anything and everything tangentially related to the course topic at hand.
So as soon as Hildegarde brought up the possibility of resuming Ellie’s private tutoring, Ellie jumped on the offer. What she’d learn would be more pertinent to her position. She asked to pick her combat skills training back up, as well. Ellie’s request earned her an extra slice of dessert that night.
Good job. You’re doing well. You’re not making a mistake. You’re not betraying anyone by doing this. These phrases and so many more lost their salience when she was stuck repeating them to herself. Her motivation waned; her interest faded. It was barely there to begin with, spurred on only by the promise of seeing Shreya whenever she needed to.
What if Ellie had made a mistake in letting her go home? What if this was it for her? The shadows of those questions haunted her. They crept inwards, driving inside of her whenever she was at her loneliest.
Wake up. Fail to get out of bed and do nothing at all, or resist that urge. Get ready, then get Sunflower and bring her to Marietta’s. Throw the ball to Sunflower. Check for Shreya. Go to the Town Hall. Get Sunflower. Go to Marietta’s. Throw the ball to Sunflower. Check for Shreya. Check for Shreya. Check for Shreya.
Life happened around checking for her.
On her worst days, when she wanted to scrape off her skin and escape, Ellie went to the woods. She had the sense to stay tethered to Sunflower. They were connected by the cuff leash on their wrist, neither able to become lost from one another.
They played along the bricks of Ianes’ Wall. Ellie looked out to the other side of the borderline. The wolves lived somewhere out there, committing whatever barbaric acts they wanted to. Ruining lives. Pretending everything in the forest belonged to them.
Sunflower tugged at the leash.
“What is it, girl?” Ellie yanked back. She changed her grip to shorten the line. “Come here.”
Her dog obeyed. She came to stand at Ellie’s side, her ears up in an alert position and her body braced tightly. Ellie put her hand on Sunflower’s back, more for her own sake than hers.
She followed her gaze to the path and saw nothing. Listening out, she heard tree leaves shifting in the wind, and the songs of birds. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing worth getting her hopes up over.
“Let’s go home.” Ellie harshened her hold.
~ * ~ * ~
When Ellie came to, she was staring at the night sky from the ground.
She reached for her fighting staff and made contact with someone’s pant leg instead. Pain whipped around in her head when she swiveled to see who it was. Henrik. What was Henrik doing in her backyard? Who gave him permission? Wasn’t he supposed to be working?
The training post dummy stood close-by. Its presence mocked her, a reminder of her accidental slip-up.
“Ellie, can you tell me what happened?” Henrik asked.
Sunflower nudged her shoulder. She whined, a long note of distress. Ellie patted her to placate her.
“I was training.” She put the pieces together as she talked. “I was… I was working on something. A reverse strike? I hit myself.”
“In the head?”
“In the head,” Ellie repeated. “I guess I knocked myself out.”
“How long ago was that? Concentrate on my finger.” He put his index finger in the middle of her vision, then slowly panned it to the left, and then to the right.
“How am I supposed to know? Why are you here?”
“Sunflower brought me. I found her crying by the gate,” Henrik said. “Are you experiencing any nausea?”
“No.” She sat up, Henrik’s arm out to catch her if she fell over.
“Can you tell me the name of Chief Vicente’s other caretaker?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Ellie winced. The chill of the night nipped at her, breaking through her decorated, over-sized coat and seeping into the nightgown beneath it. “There’s just you and Bodil. You’re his caretakers. Johanna left.”
“Where is Johanna?”
“A town, some other town. Does it matter? Are you trying to diagnose me with something? I don’t have amnesia. Nothing’s wrong with me.”
“Answer the question,” Henrik said.
“She went to the fancy city, you know the one with the schools. B-…Baekstadt.”
Henrik took her down a short list of questions. Headache? Yes. 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 meaning minimal and 10 meaning excruciating. Numbness? No. Dizziness? About a 3. Now she was sure he was trying to pin something on her.
“You should get back to my Dad. I’m fine. I just whacked myself in the head like an idiot,” Ellie said, “like an idiot.”
“You’re repeating yourself,” he said.
“No, I’m not. Here, Sunflower.” She scratched Sunflower behind her drooping, depressed-looking ears. Sunflower leaned into the touch, a smile widening across her face. “See? She’s happy because she knows I’m okay.”
“She’s happy because you’re giving her attention. You might be suffering from a mild concussion. I’d take you to Dr. Cuthberht, but I know she’s out working.”
“This late? It’s bedtime.”
“She doesn’t have time to sleep. She can’t,” Henrik said, “and neither can you by the looks of it, for different reasons. Were you having trouble sleeping?”
“Have you forgotten who you’re taking care of? My sleeping’s not any of your business,” Ellie said. “Go do what we’re paying you for.”
Henrik sighed. He pinched the sidearm of his circle-frame glasses. “I’m saying this as your friend.”
“Since when were we friends?”
“I thought we were,” Henrik said, “and as your friend, I’m checking in on you.”
“Checking in on me for what?” Ellie asked. “You just love overstepping your boundaries and telling me what to do, don’t you? You and Zinnia both. Well, I’ll tell you what I told her. Back off.”
“I had a feeling you were fighting. You didn’t even look at each other in Gaurin’s class.”
“She started it. She thinks she’s so much better than everyone else, but she has no idea. She has no idea about anything.” Ellie held her head. Sunflower lightly tapped her forehead against Ellie’s arm. “Not now, Sunflower. I’m getting a migraine.”
“Ellie, you have a concussion. I’m going to have to monitor you.”
“No, you’re not. What happened to you doing your job, anyway?”
“Chieftess Hildegarde is with him. He was having night terrors,” Henrik said. “I left to give them some privacy.”
“You don’t need to monitor me.”
“Head injuries are serious.”
“You think I don’t know that? I know that better than anyone,” Ellie snapped. “Grass is green, the sky is blue, and head injuries are serious, whoop-dee-doo.”
“Dr. Cuthberht would tell me to monitor you, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m sorry, but if I don’t—”
“Then my mom would have to hire another set of caretakers. Is that what you’re going to say?” She put her arm around Sunflower.
“I was going to say you’d die in the worst case scenario,” Henrik said.
“I’d rather that than end up like him.” It spooled out of her before she could reel it back in.
Henrik didn’t say anything for some time. She could see his nervousness, his apprehension to respond in the way his Adam’s apple bobbed. He took a moment to rub his glasses clean and clear.
Sunflower nuzzled into her side.
“I’m sorry about Chief Vicente,” he replied after some time had passed. “I remember what he used to be like. Gallant. Strong. He might be one of the best Chiefs Stockbrunn has ever seen. He really, truly didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
“Can we not talk about that?”
“Sorry, yeah, I’m sorry, too,” Ellie said. She remembered the breathing technique Shreya had taught her. In and out. Focus on regaining your center. He’s just trying to be nice.
“You’re going to freeze if we stay out here for too long.” Henrik looked towards the backdoor. “Shall we go inside?”
“In a minute. I need a minute,” she said to keep him from leaving. “I’m sorry for yelling at you the other week. I just get so…you know sometimes. Sometimes all the time.” She couldn’t find the word to say. “I lose it. I mean, anyone in my situation would, right? It’s normal.”
“How often do you lose it?”
Ellie reflected. “I dunno. A lot. Ever gotten so worked up about something that it just takes you over? It hits you real hard, right here, and it’s like it just…” She thumped her fist against her sternum. “Is that bad? It can’t be that bad.”
“It is if you think it is,” Henrik said, “but I’m not Dr. Cuthberht. She’d be better at making that judgment. You should talk to her.”
She pulled her arms into her sleeves, easing them tight around her body to hug herself. The empty limbs of her father’s old coat hung at her sides. Sunflower leaned her head against her shoulder, her hair tickling Ellie’s neck.
“What’s there to talk about?” Ellie asked.
“She can give you better ways to cope. It’s not shameful to need help. Do you want it?”
“Yeah, maybe I do, but I don’t want her help. She’d tell my mom everything.” Nothing was safe with Dr. Cuthberht.
“I don’t think she’d do that. We have privacy codes. If you’re not comfortable with her, though, there are other doctors you can see.”
“You’re biased,” Ellie said. “Of course you wouldn’t think she’s a loud mouth.”
“If she tells Chieftess Hildegarde anything, then it’s for your protection,” Henrik said.
She didn’t like the look of deep concern he was giving her. “I’m not hurting myself or anything like that. I just don’t want her or any other doctor in my business, sorry. No offense. I know you’re trying to be a doctor or something but I don’t trust you guys.”
“That’s alright. It’s better if you talk to someone you trust. I don’t know what happened between you and Zinnia, but maybe you could talk to her after you patch things up. You two seem very close.”
“We’re not dating.”
“Did anyone say you are?” Henrik asked.
“My mother, for like half a second,” Ellie said. “Silly mistake. It’s not my fault Zinnia’s my best friend and people get confused about it.” Best friend? More like only friend, and you did a fantastic job of driving her away. “Now that she’s out of the picture, I don’t think there’s anybody else I want to talk to.”
“You have more of a support system than just her. You can still get help even if she’s not around,” Henrik said. “Look around you. Stockbrunn wants you to be well.”
“Stockbrunn, yeah…” She pushed her arms back through the coat sleeves. The movement caused Sunflower to stir.
“Ellie!” Sunflower chirped, excitement spanning wide in her eyes. She flopped over onto Ellie’s lap. “Love you.”
Ellie brushed Sunflower’s hair away from her face. “I love you, too.” To Henrik, she asked, “is it pathetic that I taught her how to say that? I wonder what a doctor would say about that.” She shook her head. “Don’t tell me. Anyway, are you planning on staying in my room tonight to monitor me or whatever?”
“I don’t want Chieftess Hildegarde to get the wrong idea,” Henrik said.
“I’ve got a gir—aaahhh, a zero percent interest in boys. There’s no ideas to be had.”
“What was that? Are you in pain?”
“I’m okay. I’m just so about girls that it hurts sometimes. Ahh, girls. So many girls. I love women. I love it when they just…” Ellie shut her eyes, breathed out through clenched teeth, and squeezed her fist near her face. “Girls.”
“You’re doing a terrible job of hiding your pain. You need to lie down and rest,” he said with a sigh. “I can ask Chieftess Hildegarde to help me check on both of you. That way I can still give Chief Vicente the care he needs.”
“Don’t tell her. Be a good doctor-like person and keep this incident between us, okay? She’s got too much to worry about and I don’t want to add a head injury to that.”
“You can’t take a head injury lightly.”
“I’m not,” Ellie said. “I’ll have Sunflower sleep with me. If something goes wrong, she’ll go get you.”
“Alright, yes, she’s good at that. Keep your door open. I’m going to have to check on you periodically. I hope you don’t have trouble sleeping, because I’m going to need to wake you up to check and see if you’re alright,” Henrik said. “I didn’t know Chieftess Hildegarde allowed dogs in the house.”
“She doesn’t. That’ll be another secret between us. Wait for me to sneak her into my room before you get back to Mom and Dad. Sunflower, up. Let’s get going. I’m starting to shiver.”
Later that night, on Henrik’s third visit to her room, Ellie remembered to thank him. She wasn’t sure when she’d have the will to take his advice. Talking to her family about it would rip open their unhealed wounds. They were too close to the tragedy.
Barring Zinnia, Shreya was the only one she’d be okay with confiding in. Who knew when she’d see her again, though? And when she did, it wasn’t like she could unload everything on her. Ellie had a heavy ten years’ worth of emotion stored inside her chest. They’d only known each other for about a month. She’d be oversharing.
It wasn’t like such a thing was foreign to them, though. They’d had some dark conversations about Shreya’s past. Nothing in horrific detail, but enough for Ellie to understand Shreya had a rough upbringing and current life. It could very well be that someone in her community found out about them and was hurting her. The whole time Ellie thought she’d been abandoned, and no, Shreya was being tortured all the while.
How much of a selfish monster are you?
Ellie struck the thought dead before any of her tears could escape.
If she brought up her father to Shreya… Once Ellie started, the details would follow. She wouldn’t be able to stop. What would she think of her, then? Falling apart, weak, and fragile-hearted. That wasn’t the kind of person that Shreya deserved to have. She needed Ellie at her best, and it looked like that’s what she was giving her lately.
Good times. No more sadness. None of the things that marked the beginning of their relationship. They didn’t need to slide backwards. Ellie had to do what she was used to doing, keeping everything to herself. She’d gone this long doing that, after all.
~ * ~ * ~
She saw her again sooner than she thought.
It was at Ianes’ Wall, on a day (the next morning? a few days afterwards?) where Ellie had slipped inside of herself. She fell into detachment. It wasn’t like something barreled into her particularly hard that day. She just woke up feeling that way, an all-over tingle and disconnect.
Trudged footsteps brought her to the crumbled bricks and haphazardly-grown tall grass. Her drowsiness outlined the scenery in a feathered glow, or perhaps a fog would be more apt. No matter the word, the woods had softened around her.
Sunflower idled ahead, their wrists connected by a sturdy leash. Ellie would’ve laid down and taken a nap if it weren’t for that. Come whatever may, just like that day.
“Ellie!” Her girlfriend’s (were they? weren’t they?) voice broke through her reverie.
Delicately, as if waking, she said her name. “Shreya.”
Shreya’s appearance happened in shutters for Ellie. The darkness of her blinking stretched past briefness. There she was, down the path. Blink. There she was, getting closer. Blink. She wasn’t alone. Longer blink and finally, the girl she waited for was in front of her.
“Why are you here?” Shreya asked. She wore a poncho, high-collared to cover her throat. Its billowed sleeves went to her elbows. Geometric black and white patterns cascaded the front, which ended in a triangular shape overlaying her pants. Her hat was knitted, in the same earflap style she always had. Her deerskin cape was pushed back off of her shoulders.
“Waiting for you, I guess. You look warm,” Ellie commented. She’d been lucid enough to dress practically for her trek. Dark brown hiking boots, trousers held up by a belt that carried her family’s crest, and a long sleeved shirt with lace-lined buttons. Her red cloak, worn to keep out the winds, stuck out in the forest green.
Shreya’s companion said something Ellie didn’t understand. She was taller than her, her figure mostly hidden by the drapey clothes she sported. Two dried gourds hung from the strap over her shoulder. Her hat was the same as Shreya’s, cut and fabric and everything. She also had a cape on, made from a speckled deer. An unnerving smile grew on her face as she watched Ellie watching her.
Tone sharp, Shreya replied back to her. The stranger laughed, the similarity to Shreya’s laughter catching Ellie off guard. It was enough to snap her further into wakefulness. She took in more of the other girl’s appearance, having to do a double-take between her and Shreya. Although they weren’t identical, there was no questioning that this was Shreya’s twin.
The one Ellie was warned never to meet.
“H-hi,” she squeaked out.
Sunflower stepped to Ellie’s side. She started to growl. Ellie held her hand to stop her. The last thing she needed was for Sunflower to repeat her attack on Shreya onto her sister this time. If she was as ruthless as Shreya had said, then that wasn’t going to end well. She wouldn’t put it past her to hurt Sunflower back twice as badly.
“Hello,” the girl greeted. She grinned brightly. “Am Shanti. Good to introduce you.”
“This is my sister. Her Casternian is not the greatest,” Shreya explained. “She was never that interested in learning it. I may have to be your translator. Speak slowly and directly when you talk to her.”
“For what reason on this fairest morning of our Autumn week day has she chosen to accompany you? She’s making my acquaintance for…why?” Ellie asked, hoping that her speech was above Shanti’s comprehension level.
“I told her about us. She wanted to meet you,” Shreya said.
“Is it true that you’re in possession of a tranquil demeanor as you bestow this harbinger of dread upon me?”
“Is this okay?” Ellie scanned Shreya over for any signs of worry. “Are we safe?” Don’t you dare prove Zinnia right.
“Yes, we are. I won’t let anything bad happen to you or Sunflower.” She grasped Ellie’s free hand and gave it a squeeze in promise before letting go. “Where is your bag?”
“I forgot it. I’m not feeling that great…. I’ll tell you later.” And then, in a whisper, she said, “I missed you.”
Shanti burst out laughing.
Shreya glared at her.
“Funny dog,” she said, waving her hands in defense. “Very angry.” She then said something in their home language, her grin gaining a wicked edge. Shreya responded dismissively.
“What was that?” Ellie asked.
“She was betting me that she could beat Sunflower in a fight. She is not serious so do not worry.” Shreya leaned in, closer to Ellie’s ear. “I missed you, too,” she quietly said. “Sorry, I could not come without her.”
“It’s okay.” It was hard for Ellie to say the things she wanted to say with an audience present, even if that audience wasn’t as well-versed in Casternian as they were. She had to shelf her questions for another time. “Where to? I take it we’re not going to stand here forever.”
Don’t say Marietta’s, she begged.
“Our house,” Shreya decided. “Shanti, we are going to a house. We found it together.”
“Cute,” Shanti said. “Show me the house.”
“We’ll follow you guys. It’ll calm Sunflower more if she can see you,” Ellie said.
“Yes, okay. Come this way,” Shreya said. She motioned for Shanti to walk beside her. Every now and then, they’d exchange bits of their language, Shanti pointing at various sights.
What am I in for here?
A/N: Voting will end November 14th at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 37 will be on November 21st.
Chapter 32’s poll had 22 votes. I held it open for a little bit of extra time. There were 21 votes for Shanti meeting Ellie and 1 vote for Ellie the sleuth.
Thank you for reading.